Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mutabaruka: Barefoot Truth

photos by Varun Baker.
Location: Bolivar Gallery, Kingston

“This is not an action. It is a reaction.” The words stuck in my head long after I heard Mutabaruka (the “Barefoot Boss himself” as one of my Facebook friends called him) uttering them on a local TV newscast. He was talking to the students of Marcus Garvey High School, looking majestic in his robes. I could no longer remember the context; but I liked it when he said that whatever it was was a reaction rather than an action because the words seemed to sum up the recent edicts of the Broadcasting Commission and the general attempt to “clean up” the airwaves.

So last night I called Muta to find out what he had meant when he said that. Well, he couldn't remember either as it turned out; it definitely had nothing to do with the BC, he explained as he filled me in on his role in the whole controversy. I had wondered about it everytime I heard his name being used to bolster the arguments made by those who would censor, for as popular talkshow host 'Ragashanti' Stewart noted, Muta's sudden popularity with the establishment is amusing and unprecedented. The Prime Minister, as one headline put it, ordered a “forum on X-rated songs” in response to dub poet, Mutabaruka who, in his address during a reception in recognition of Reggae Month held at Jamaica House “noted that the negative lyrics and explicit images being promoted through the music were eroding the values of the society and impacting negatively on the behaviour of some young people.”

An exultant Ian Boyne gloated that Muta's “strong and unequivocal call for censorship and even punishment by the state has set the cat among the pigeons and has left the UWI defenders of dancehall in a quandary”. When Boyne and people like him critiqued dancehall they were dismissed as narrow-minded, interfering members of the middle classes. “But,” as he went on to say,” they don't know how to deal with Mutabaruka. He has authenticity and no one can get away with saying that he despises black people and their culture.”

So what exactly did he say, I asked Muta, that could have found such favour with these pro-censorship voices? And why? Yu growin old? I asked.

Far from it, Muta responded, on the contrary he was merely articulating a Rasta perspective. He knew there were people who were disappointed that “Muta tek side with government.” “But no,” said Muta firmly, he had not simply sided with the government. If anything “a mi mek the government do something.”

According to Muta it all started with an invitation from Taylor Hall students at UWI asking him to come and show the film Sankofa to mark Black History Month (The poet plays the role of an insurgent slave leader in the film). When Muta arrived with a Rasta friend from Spanish Town they were asked to wait while a dancehall session already in progress concluded before showing the film. Muta and his bredrin had no choice but to be exposed to an hour or two of a non-stop barrage of what he described as “pure pum pum, buddy and gun lyrics” while they waited. More than the raunchy lyrics it was the violence and aggression of the gun songs that upset him. When his friend turned to him in wonder and asked “a university dis?” Muta felt that he absolutely could not subject his friend, clearly unfamiliar with such music, to any more of it. He grabbed up his DVD, and friend in tow, left the scene without showing the film.

The experience disturbed and agitated Muta considerably. He needed to talk to somebody in power, he told his wife, Jacki--someone with the influence to intervene before the music went completely to the dogs. A few days later he was invited to King's House to speak at a reception to mark Reggae Month and decided to express his views on the subject there. Not once did he mention Ramping Shop or the notorious 'daggering' music that was inundating the airwaves because it was the graphic violence of the lyrics that really bothered him, not so much its sexual content.

Look how successfully international gay rights organizations have mobilized themselves against so-called hate lyrics in Jamaican music, he said, contrasting their resolute action with the seeming impotence of the government. “We nah ha no government. Student having sex pon bus. How come dem B-men can stop violent lyrics and the government can't do anything?” Perhaps Tatchell and company should be brought in to address the remaining problems with the music since the government seemed incapable of doing anything about it, he added bitterly.

Muta's words seemed to galvanize the government into action. Prime Minister Bruce Golding subsequently directed the Minister of Information, Culture, Youth and Sports, Olivia Grange, “to organise a task force to discuss concerns raised over the explicitly sexual and violent content of some local songs.” The task force met on February 13th and included Queen Ifrica, Mutabaruka, Tony Rebel and others but as one commentator noted, it seemed one-sided as “only voices against dancehall were heard.”

“A man like me coulda neva fight gainst dancehall” says Muta, explaining that he owes Reggae music his livelihood. But it seemed to him and others within the music fraternity, that things are now worse than they've ever been in terms of hostility and aggression. He is completely against the locking up of DJs for the use of so-called bad words but feels that things have reached a different level when even a hardcore warlord like Bounti Killer is heard saying “Dem man gone too far” in relation to the latest violent lyrics (as he did on the programme “Entertainment Buzz” which preceded Muta's Wednesday night programme on Irie last Sunday). I had to laugh at the thought of the militant, confrontational, uncompromising Bounti deploring the violence of contemporary DJs. We ARE all getting old.

According to Muta he has been saying for a long time that artistes such as Capleton and Sizzla ought to stop their anti-homosexual rants so this is not the first time he has protested the mindless expression of violence in dancehall. His concern is that society seems much more preoccupied and up in arms about blatant sexual expression in music rather than putting brakes on film and video content portraying murder, assault and bodily harm. “How can a family sit down and watch a bloody movie and when the sex part come dey cover up di pikni face?”

Tonight Mutabaruka's programme, The Cutting Edge, will discuss: Is Reggae a beat or the name of Jamaican music after Rocksteady? The panel of guests will include Winston Merritone Blake, Toots Hibbert, Bunny Striker Lee, Ernie Ranglin, Desi Jones and Winston Golding of Swing Disco. 10 pm to 2 am, IRIE FM (107.7).


Jamaipanese said...

excellent post.

I am a supporter of Muta and I respect him highly.

I have been hearing that a lot of animosity was being directed against him and this post explained i nicely. I'll be listening to his show tonight.

Long time the music fi clean up but there is a difference between cleaning up the music and censorship, I just hope the authorities understand the difference

Anonymous said...

Annie - Thanks a thousand times for "setting the record straight" on this issue!!

It is the nature of governments to coopt the arguments and wishes of citizens and to use it against them. At no time did I think that Muta was "siding" with govament. The goals are mildly similar, but the intentions and strategies are quite different. This needs to be pointed out in the ensuing discussion. This whole fracas bout Muta sell out an what not is another indication that Jamaicans really need to stop thinking in either-or terms and see that nothing is so simplistic anymore.

Annie Paul said...

Thanks you two! wow that was quick--

isn't it interesting that none of the news media reported the details of what Muta said at the reception re Tatchell etc.

interesting how half the story never gets told fi true...


Annie, thanks for elucidating Muta's position!!Nuff respect!!

Susan said...

Hi Annie, Thanks for letting me know about your post--this should be printed in The Observer too. Nice piece. cheers, Susan.

Ishion said...

Annie: Very interesting post. First I see putting the issue clearly. First and foremost, we have to remember that Rastas are not against the government. The issue is in the social arena, Rastas form part of that, and it is only relevant to agree where it seems right to. It seems to me that any attempt, even though the BC stance might sound draconian to DJs- but these DJs are adults- and seem oblivious to what is really going on. We have to worry about the pickni dem. Rastas keep and care the family, all time, so anything where the family will suffer less, we have to agree on.


Empress Gong said...

Reggae has been going down hill for the last 10 years. Now that it's mixing up with American hip hop and all that stands for - it's becoming crap. I only listen to "culture reggae" now. Reggae was once the voice for the non-violent Rasta way of life, so non-violent that they promote ital or living foods, not dead flesh of animals, and now, what to speak of killing and eating animals, they are singing about killing human beings!

Youth everywhere have lost their way. No vision. Just bling, pum-pum and violence. This is NOT culture. This is total lack of culture.

Instead of being a force for positive change in the world, they are sinking further into the pit of worldliness and materialism.

I hope that at least Indians and other South Asians in Jamaica are holding onto their spiritual culture.

Annie Paul said...

Empress Gong,

thanks for visiting and leaving a comment! actually i don't make that distinction between culture Reggae and dancehall. if you read my post before this one you'll see that i find dancehall just as creative, perhaps even more so than the Tony Rebels and Morgan Heritage et al.

its true that there's a spiritual dimension lacking in dhall but then again when u listen to mavado's On the Rock or some of Buju's hymn like songs u realize its not there. things don't happen in isolation, if the whole world is into materialism and bling you can't blame those with no proper education and no resources to rise above it.

but when they turn it into a product that gives them a living and is internationally competitive instead of becoming druggists, pimps or whores i think its worth celebrating.

FSJL said...

Interesting and important post, Annie. I'm fundamentally, unlike my old friend Ian Boyne, opposed to censorship, though some things (including both blatant vulgarity and violence) I do find increasingly grating.

It's one thing to celebrate yourself, your body, your freedom. But if all you are is a violent homophobe, or if the only thing you can do with your liberty is fuck, or you are just your sex organs, then there's a problem.

Empress Gong said...

"but when they turn it into a product that gives them a living and is internationally competitive instead of becoming druggists, pimps or whores i think its worth celebrating."..............

Well, I guess that would depend on how you define druggin, pimpin and ho-in, because most, if not all of these reggae folk are strung out on ganja and/or alcohol, having all kinds of promiscious sex with multiple partners, and then writing and singing about it for $$$. I call that druggin', pimpin' and ho-in'!!!!

And don't even get me started on the baby mamma and baby daddy culture of Jamaica. Does anyone even bother to get legally married anymore?


Seems like the whole planet is going to the dogs and only Asian people are holding it down with their family values, educational standards, work ethic and morals.

Annie Paul said...

really Empress? have you seen Slumdog Millionaire?? Asia may have strong family values but them as cutthroat and corrupt as anyone else...

Empress Gong said...

Slumdog was just a movie. A movie that showed CRIMINAL elements of India. I would expect the criminal elements of Jamaica to act the same. NOT the entertainment elements or the regular neighborhood folk. Drug use and babies out of wedlock are not common amongst regular folk in India. I mean, even drinking is a taboo in many places.

Annie Paul said...

i'm suggesting that you're viewing India thru rosy glasses. where do you think Ganja came from??

drinking may be taboo but men drink country liquor under cover. and that liquor sometimes is poisonous because of being prepared under poor hygienic conditions.

in India female infanticide is common, don't see anything good about that--

Ruthibelle said...

“How can a family sit down and watch a bloody movie and when the sex part come dey cover up di pikni face?”

wow... looka that. you're right Annie. Apparently they gettin old. But with age (one would hope) comes wisdom, and that is exactly what I see FINALLY being expressed here... thanks for this. Awesome post.

Annie Paul said...

hey Ruthi,

thanks, yeah age does bring wisdom usually. just wanted to present another facet to this whole thing. Muta's a great mind, love talking with him.

Grounation said...

Excellent post, Annie, and Empress Gong needs to take some lessons from you about contemporary Indian society.

It's high time that we query the false culture vs. slackness distinction between reggae and dancehall. As someone who grew up in the 1970s, immersed in roots reggae and dub, I recall the intense sexualised movements of rub-a-dub and rent-a-tile. It was like having sex standing up, and there are too middle aged hypocrites of my generation who are now pretending that dancehall DJs brought "slackness" into popular music. Some Rasta elders like to get on the moralistic bandwagon about dancehall, while overlooking the patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies of many of the brethren. Dancehall is a convenient scapegoat that allows us to ignore the deeply embedded structural formations of violence, misogyny, homophobia, and classism in Jamaican society. We need to tackle the roots of the problem rather than hack at the branches.


Empress Gong said...

Folks, I am not putting Indians or Asians on pedastal. Though to be fair, female infanticide is NOT common there. Statistically it is a minority of people who are doing that, though granted, in a country of 1 billion plus, a minority could be in the thousands, even millions.

However, I think Annie is holding Jamaicans to a low standard. To be appreciative of the low-class, base and ignorant style of dancehall artists just because they are not criminals is setting a low standard for Jamaicans. It's not that just because someone is poor and un-educated that their only choice is between working in crime or writing sleazy songs. There are so many choices in between. One can be a dancehall artist sans the filthy language. It' not either/or. We always have more than just 2 choices.

Surely Asian cultures have their issues too, but go anywhere in the world, who are the hardest working people, whether educated or not? Asians. They make a name for themselves where they go, whether as hardworking laborers, independent business entreprenuers or educated professionals. They are not people to just sit back, whine and tack government handouts.

They also do not have patterns for out of wedlock pregnancices.

We all know who does though...

Now who's fault is that?

Ain't nobodies fault but your own. All men and women got to do is keep their pants zipped! Or use condoms. Simple as that. Ain't nobody can blame "the system" for an out of wedlock child.

And Annie, I'm surprised that you talking like you do about Asians. You are Asian yourself so I'm sure you can appreciate the good things about your culture, can't you?

And it's not a matter of "getting old". I'm young yet I DO NOT WANT TO HEAR music glorifying violence or promiscuous, un-protected, disease-spreading, unwanted-baby-producing sex!

If they wanna sing about sex so much they should sing about the condom!

Annie Paul said...


The point is i don't see what dancehall has to do with pregnancies out of wedlock, crime, a dysfunctional economy etc.

i'm suggesting that you and others who think that culture is something on a pedestal and that the culture you come from is lowly, base and worthless think again.

i don't feel particularly privileged coming from india because like you with Jamaica i see mostly the negative things: female infanticide, dowry deaths, oppressive relations between men and women, gigantic slums, oppressive traditions and religious rivalries and crass materialism. nothing to celebrate there at all.

on the other hand i do see a lot to celebrate about jamaican music, including its current avatar, dancehall. to me it is an internationally competitive cultural product that put Jamaica on the map and keeps it there. the people who create the music are denied equal opportunities and discriminated against daily. yet with all that they are able to create something which is in demand all over the world. now if the lack of opportunity they were subjected to has prevented them from becoming as 'cultured' as you would like them to be i'd say that's not entirely their fault. they have all they can do just trying to create opportunities for themselves without having to live up to your expectations or mine.

and you have a right not to want to hear certain kinds of music but you ought not to have a right to claim that others who do like the music you diapprove of are 'criminals', vulgar, lowly etc.

focus on getting everyone a good education, healthcare, work and all those things you complain about will improve with or without dancehall.

Empress Gong said...

"The point is i don't see what dancehall has to do with pregnancies out of wedlock, crime, a dysfunctional economy etc."

Annie, dancehall is not the CAUSE of crime and dysfunction, it's the SYMPTOM. Dancehall lyrics are reflective of the life the lyricists are already living, reflective of the environment they grew up in.

Not all cultures are equal.

However, media does play a big role in influencing youth that grow up listening to this or that. If youth grow up listening to songs about violence, songs about unprotected sex, well, there is an influence there for sure.

Black Jamaicans are already down. Dancehall music is just like kicking us when we are already down. It's like adding salt to a wound.

The question is; Do artists have a moral responsibility towards their audience or is it just all about money?

Annie Paul said...

why should artistes have more of a moral responsibility than anyone else? have you asked the hotel moguls what their responsibility is? is sex tourism ok by you?

why hold those at the bottom of society to high standards and let off those at the top who've had all the privileges and benefits this society has to offer?

Empress Gong said...

With all due respect Annie, it appears you have problem staying on topic, even when the topic was started by you. Your blog article here is about reactions to explicit lyrics in dancehall music, isn't it? So where does hotel moghuls and sex tourism come in?

Write a blog article about that (tourist industry) and then I can respond with my opinion there. But for now and here, the topic is the issue of sexually explicit and violent dancehall lyrics.

Nuff said.

FSJL said...

Empress Gong, I think you're missing Annie's point. The issue is not simply the explicitness of the lyrics (and if you want explicitness how about 'mi open har leg, mi push in mi peg, shi feel up mi two seed like fowl egg'? that was Yellowman 28 years ago) but the fact that sexual behaviour and sexually explicit lyrics are being attacked, while violence is being ignored.

Empress Gong said...

Whether 8 years ago, 28 years ago or 108 years ago, I'm not into hearing sexually explicit or violent lyrics in public and support a ban.

The topic here is lyrics in radio music. Violence off the radio is NOT the topic. If she writes a blog article about that, we can address it.

Why write a blog article about a topic if you don't want to get comments about the very same topic?

Doesn't make any sense.

FSJL said...

Empress Gong, I congratulate you, you have cut to the heart of the problem: to treat cancer apply a sticking plaster. By all means ban vulgar dances, explicit lyrics, and certainly, homophobic ones. That will certainly cure Jamaica's problems and bring about a new era of responsibility, respect, and decency. Funny that people were saying this thirty years ago, forty years ago, and probably fifty years ago (but fifty years ago I wasn't in Jamaica and wasn't taking much notice of the issue).

Annie Paul said...

i don't believe in monorail thinking Empress that's all. cultural phenomena can't and shouldn't be compartmentalized. but since you seem dedicated to one-track thinking please go ahead. i cede my blog space to you...i bow out of this monologic conversation...

thanks Frag, you tried...

Empress Gong said...

Thankyou for cedeing your blog to me Annie. It's appreciated.

I don't understand either your or Frag's issues with my opinion. This particular blog article was about lyrics heard on radio, was it not? So I gave my personal opinion on it.

I really don't see the problem.

Would you rather I have chimed in about the "War on Terrorism" or something?


If you don't agree with me, that's fine of course, we all have our own opinions, however it's silly to chastise me for replying to the issue at hand and commenting on the topic you wrote about.


Anonymous said...

wow - this is quite a thread here.

Now, Empress Gong: You really need to go back and read what you wrote. It was YOU who brought up babies and sex outside of marriage (I hate that word wedlock), crime, drugs, and what not as issues related to the general social decline that you believe is taking place, where dancehall is a major symptom of that decline.

Annie was pointing out, rightly so, that

1) your focus on "Asians" as some model group (never mind that what you're describing as a a single category is comprised of many countries, cultures, and peoples) is problematic for many reasons, and based entirely on stereotypes. (BTW, there's no such thing as a positive stereotype.)

2) it makes little sense to blame people at the bottom of the social hierarchy for the problems in the society, when those problems are the outcomes of social and political choices made by those at the top. Sex tourism is just as much a "product" of Jamaican society as the "bling, pum-pum and violence" in dancehall culture, and ought to be as likely a target in your analysis about what's wrong with Jamaica, but it isn't, precisely because of where it is situated.

3) Yuh blasted facety fi come pon har blog an a come tell har wha fi chat bout, an den a come wid yuh remarks like seh she a eediyat! A wha' yuh tek dis ting fa? [One big kiss-teeth, shake har frock tail an' ga'an!]

Annie, I do think you establish a rather rigid causal argument about the effects of the social marginalization of DJ's on the individual choices they make about how they address issues such as conspicuous consumption, etc. in their lifestyles and music. Each of the DJ's DO have choices, constrained ones, certainly, and can choose not to follow the herd, but they don't. Certainly, broader conditions legitimize some choices as ok and others as less ok. While I understand why some choices predominate, I am not under the illusion that the very creativity that you mention and celebrate can't be measured or displayed in different ways. This is an issue about moral agency, and how they choose to use that agency. It has some "positives" like the ones you mention; but it has some "negatives" too.

Empress - nuh badda come fi mi, a'right? If yuh jus' w'aa deh pon yuh soapbox an a gwa'an bout moral decline an' what not, den yuh need fi tek whe' yuhself. If yuh want to dialogue, then read, think, and come back again.

Annie Paul said...

Thanks LB, thanks. i was almost afraid to come back and read EG's latest outburst.

Empress i wasn't chastising you but your rant is getting tiresome. why don't you start your own blog? seriously you might be very good at it and there's a constituency for views like yours.

LB i do agree that there are negatives about choices DJs make, etc but i have chosen in the face of large numbers of critics who constantly and exclusively dwell on the negatives to point out the quite remarkable positives.

in this case i did go further and present Muta's views in an effort to give the other side of the story from a source i really respect...

Jamaica is practically the only country in the world where the underclasses have produced something as successful as the music in all its forms. apart from its commercial success its a rare instance of people at the bottom of society creating a voice for themselves. i'm interested in how and why that is so. naturally as a product it then reflects the same problems the people who produce it are afflicted with.

and those should certainly be criticized. But i find that Jamaican society preoccupies itself with chastising, correcting and curbing only these sectors of society. meanwhile it takes a foreign interest (canadian scotia) to put its foot down about a high and mighty pillar of society having a child 'out of wedlock' with one of his employees. where were the Empress Gongs of this country then i wonder?

Empress Gong said...

Greetings Longbench.

I will address your first 2 points because they were written in English and I understand them.

1. I talked about drugs, violence and "out of wedlock" sexual activity because those are the topics of the dancehall songs that are being deemed controversial across the country. If they were singing about yoga and meditation and being deemed controversial then I would address that.

2. I do not believe that society at the top or government is the reason why people do drugs, commit acts of violence or have sex. So if you want somebody do participate in the "blame game", it's not Empress Gong. Each individual is responsible for their own drug use, violent outbursts and spread their legs and/or seed.

Regarding "there is no such thing as a positive stereotype"... WHO SAYS? And why should I believe him/her?

Anonymous said...

Annie - Just so you know, I completely agree with your perspective and understand why you engage in this particular way. However, since those who are more interested to chastise, chant dung, lock up, ban, tear dung etc. aren't all that interested in any kind of nuanced dialogue, I think our efforts are best spent encouraging as well as critically engaging with (the work of) the DJ's themselves in ways that are far more productive. Dancehall does not have to descend into a space of nihilism, and I think all of us who are invested in dancehall - even if we do not come from the underclasses - have a responsibility to help make it bigger and better. Nuff said.

Grounation said...

Well said,longbench. I think that dancehall artistes need to critically reflect on their lyrical output, and they also need to have meaningful dialogue with JFLAG and women's organizations about homophobia, misogyny, and violence. We have to get into some Walter Rodney style "groundings" - some deep and sincere reasonings about human rights, creativity, and accepting human diversity.

Empress Gong said...

So at the end of it all, it looks like we are all in agreement here. Something needs to be done.

Annie Paul said...

Great! some progress--

The change may come from within the business itself and that's the best kind of change.

i'm curious to see how Terry Lyn's new song Kingston Logic is received and the effect it will have. its raising the bar big time, and the music vid is extraordinary in terms of production values, creativity and so on.

but Grounation, LB and EG i doubt that we'll be able to influence DJs' views on sexual diversity etc until the political leaders of this society start engaging with the subject in a much more enlightened way. that kind of change has to come from the top down. and let me tell u it would shock u if a poll were done at the universities, both lecturers and students as to their views on homosexuality. now if we're unable to change their views i can guarantee that DJs will be that much harder!

the same goes for misogyny etc...

Empress Gong said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Annie Paul said...

ahhhh the pleasures of i understand how the Broadcasting Commission feels. Sorry Empress Bong! you can't have the last word on my blog...snotty, obnoxious, illogical people not welcome--good riddance!

Anonymous said...

Annie - such irrepressible glee in that last response! Didn't think you had it in you! LOL>

I am finding that UWI folks - both professors and students - seem to use that space to promote retrograde thinking in the name of "national identity", and to see that space as beyond criticism precisely because it is "perceived" as a site for higher-order thinking. It sure isn't. I love the idea of the "groundation" model, of creating opportunities for exchanges where we begin with the assumption that we all have similar goals, and have something to say, and that one's station is not equivalent to one's being. That way, we try to take out some of the hierarchical crap that is often used to stifle dialogue, and to get to another level. Not every DJ or every student will want to participate or see such a process as beneficial. But its still an important step for building bridges and creating alliances of all sorts. And of course, this has to happen over food. People are much nicer to each other when dem belly full. The ultimate long bench, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Write good lyrics for dancehall artistes and they would perform them if they are good. Instead of just crying about the lyrics you don't like, light a candle for the artistes trying to make a living with what they are given by song-writers. Nuff respeck to Muta B and all the conscious song writers out there. How does one get a conscious song to Buju and Sizzla?